Tranquility of Marshes belies the current warfare (photo: Jamie Simson)
Reed dwellings of the Marsh Arabs (photo: Jamie Simson)
Sandstorms are relentless (photo: Jamie Simson)
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.(Genesis 2:8-9)
Watching the sun sink behind the wall of swaying reeds and observing spidery date palms casting a tangle of sharp reflections on the still waters is to be gripped by a spell of magic given off by the marshlands of Southern Iraq. It is no wonder that the very first stories of creation and a great flood originated here. Known as ancient Mesopotamia, this is the land viewed by historians to have been the cradle of civilization.
Inhabiting the hauntingly beautiful marshlands which are located north of the Persian Gulf are wild boar, fish, endless varieties of waterfowl and Midan tribesmen who live on floating reed islands. To modern eyes, the Midan way of life appears primitive. However, they live by a strong code of ethics which are highly advanced. For instance, if a guest overstays his welcome at the home of a Midan, the family would go bankrupt rather than turn the guest away. Or, if a visitor or another Midan fled to a neighboring Midan and threw his arms around the Midans knees. the Midan is bound to protect him, even if it involves sacrificing the lives of family members.
The Marsh Arabs, as the Midans are called, live semi-nomadic lives. Information gathered from the texts of excavated tablets shows this way of life to have remained remarkably unaltered since Sumerian and Old Testament times, even down to the ornate reed homes they live in.
During the past four years, however, the tranquility of the marshes has been invaded by the Iranian-Iraq war. It is indeed ironic that the Midan lifestyle which has survived for centuries is threatened by frequent battle.
West of the marshes in the desert stands the desolate mud-brick ruins of the city of Ur, known from the book of Genesis as the place where Abraham is believed to have lived before migrating to Canaan.
The first urban center in history, Ur had a population of 200,000 in the fourth millennium. Its residents were Sumerians, a people believed to have migrated from the mountainous region around the Caspian Sea. The temple of Nannar, a building complex surrounded by a wall 400 yards long and 200 yards wide, dominated the city. The most impressive part of the temple was the ziggurat, a 70-foot high tower dedicated to Nanner, the moon god. A series of progressively smaller layers, the ziggurat was made of mud brick on the interior and burned bricks on the exterior.
In Abrahams time most of the residents of Ur lived in two-story buildings made of white washed bricks since stone was scarce. Each home had a door that opened inward because according to Sumerian legend, If the door of a house opens outward, the woman of that house will be a torment to her husband. Home furnishings were simple; a few folding chairs and tables, colorful rugs and cushions and floor mattresses to sleep on.
Further north of Ur was perhaps the most famous of the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, site of the legendary tower of Babel and home of the Hanging Gardens. The pre-Sumerian name is believed to have been Babu elle (holy gate). Sometime later it was changed to the gate of the god.
Chapter 11 of Genesis relates the story of men all living in the same town, who spoke the same language. These men decided to build a tower with its top reaching heaven. They wished to make a name for themselves so that they would not be scattered all over the earth.
Yahweh (God) saw this and said so they are all a single people with a single language This is the start of their undertakings there will be nothing too hard for them to do. Yahweh confused their language and then scattered them over the earth. The town then became known as Babel.
The ruins of the ancient city are located about 60 miles south of Baghdad, close to the Hilla canal of the Euphrates River. During its heyday Babylon was a riverfront city. Today, with the course change of the Euphrates, the ruins are about ten miles to the west of the river.
Babylon was without equal during its time. Double walls adorned with colorful tiles surrounded the city. The chief temple and the magnificent processional Ishtar Gate were spectacles to behold. The wall was interrupted by eight gates. The most sumptuous of these, the Ishtar Gate, was built with baked bricks and decorated with enameled tiles displaying 575 dragons and bulls arranged in 13 rows. A processional road decorated with lions led to the gate.
Under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar Babylon rose to new splendors, becoming a leader in commerce and culture. The Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the world, were a gift from Nebuchadnezzar to his Persian wife, Amyitis, who missed the mountains of her homeland.
Two hundred and twenty miles southeast of Babylon, the Euphrates joins the Tigris in a vast basin engulfed by rustling deep green palm trees. Amongst the palm groves there is a rusty placard reading, Abraham prayed here 2000 years ago. According to the legend, this marks the place of the Garden of Eden.
The whole region of Mesopotamia (meaning literally between the rivers) is a landscape teeming with date palms and nourished by the fertility of the Tigris and Euphrates, in stark contrast to the sterility of the deserts which surround it. It provides the setting for many episodes of the Old Testament.
Yahweh said to Abram, Leave your country, your family and your fathers house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you.(Genesis 12:12)
Abraham would have followed the course of the Euphrates up-stream to Mari in Syria. This was one of the busier trade routes of the time, linking the Arabian Gulf with Anatolia (Turkey) and the Mediterranean.
Today Mari is a tel, a hill, formed by the superimposition over the millenia of layer upon layer of mud-brick buildings.
Further north on the Euphrates by present-day Raqqa, a tributary of the main stream, the Balikh, shoots off to Haran. Abraham and his animals would have had to negotiate the river at some stage, perhaps on a wooden raft or a boat made of reed bundles. A whole chain of tels like Mari and Haran dot the banks of the Euphrates and the Balikh. Some of these would have been towns or villages on Abrahams passage. Today fishermen drift home through blazing sunsets, past the hump-like silhouettes of these abodes of yesteryear.
While modern developments such as roads and electricity are installed, one comes across aspects of village life that reflect the customs of Abrahams time. Present-day scenes from Iraq such as the shepherd attired in ankle-length tunics or women harvesting the threshing wheat could be scenes from the Bible. Yet the old-fashion lifestyle plods on at a snails pace, peacefully co-existing with the modernization of the country.
Jamie Simson, a freelance writer who lives in London, writes for Middle East publications.